"If you really ask the people in Taiwan whether Taiwan ... is a sovereign nation, everyone will say, 'Yes,' so he has made people feel good. At last we can say what we really are."
-- Professor Yu Shan-Wu of Taiwan National University
(CNN) -- It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that during the summer of 1999 Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui became the person most reviled by China. Beijing's state-run media heaped insult upon insult on Lee.
"Lee Teng-hui, a rat running across the street with everybody shouting 'Smack it,'" the Liberation Army Daily said in a commentary. It went on to call Lee "the No. 1 scum in the nation."
The official Xinhua news agency said Lee was a "deformed test-tube baby cultivated in the political laboratory of hostile anti-China forces."
The reason for all the vitriol was Lee's announcement in July that henceforth bilateral ties between Taipei and Beijing should be on a "special state-to-state" basis. It was an effort to try to break Taiwan out of diplomatic limbo.
For China, this was tantamount to Taiwan calling itself a separate state.
In the days and weeks after Lee's statement, China's military conducted exercises in Fujian Province, across the Taiwan Strait from what China considers a "renegade province." It was a scene reminiscent of March 1996, when Lee became Taiwan's first democratically elected leader. In a vain effort to discredit Lee, China carried out military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, prompting the United States to send two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region -- a warning that Washington would not tolerate military hostilities.
History of controversy
The man who triggered all this has long been controversial. Lee Teng-hui was born in Taiwan (on January 15, 1923), unlike many in Taiwan's political hierarchy who fled to the island in the late 1940s as the Communists seized the mainland.
Lee managed to rise above the discrimination and constraints aimed at native Taiwanese to become a political star, a trusted figure in the inner circle of President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of the legendary Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. When President Chiang died in January 1988, Lee Teng-hui succeeded him.
Vowing to continue and expand the modest political reforms begun by his predecessor, Lee was elected president in his own right in April 1990. Within months he convened a National Affairs Conference to advise him on further constitutional reforms. By the end of 1991 Lee had forced all the old legislators to retire, eroding one of Taiwan's historic links to the mainland. Mayors of the major cities and the governor of "Taiwan Province" became directly elected, rather than appointed by the central government. Having transformed municipal governments, Lee turned his attention to the higher strata.
China watched uneasily and grew increasingly vociferous in its opposition. When Lee organized the 1996 direct election of the president, long-simmering issues finally came to a boil. Groups advocating outright independence for the island were allowed to field candidates, as were groups firmly opposed to further reforms, fearing an invasion by China. Beijing's military display during the election was a potent reminder of the potential dangers facing Taiwan, but it did little to dissuade voters from choosing Lee as their president by a healthy majority.
Beijing lashes out
Lee returns in 1995 to Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1968. He was a professor of economics in Taipei before entering politics
It wasn't the first time Lee had incurred China's wrath. In 1995 U.S. President Bill Clinton allowed Lee to make a private visit to the United States, bowing to pressure from Taiwan's supporters in the U.S. Congress. Beijing lashed out at Lee, as it would do repeatedly over the next several years.
Tensions eased somewhat after the 1996 U.S. presidential election. Relations between China and the United States improved, much to the concern of many Taiwan officials. They feared that Washington's reiterated adherence to the "one-China" policy would limit Taiwan's ability to seek a greater role in world affairs, including its long-running campaign to seek a seat in the United Nations.
China's ties with the United States had a major role in Lee's policy toward Beijing. China-U.S. trade ties, never free of tension, soured further in the late 1990s over Beijing's bid to enter the World Trade Organization.
Then, in 1999, during NATO's campaign against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, a U.S. missile struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Washington insisted it was an accident. Beijing maintained otherwise.
With U.S.-China relations at their lowest in years, some observers say Lee decided the time was ripe for his government to raise itself to an equal footing with Beijing by demanding that future dealings between the mainland and the island be conducted on a state-to-state basis.
It was the closest Lee had come to declaring Taiwan's independence as an eventual goal. Although the statements he made following his announcement reiterated Taiwan's desire for eventual reunification with a "democratic" China, the damage was done.
Backed by Washington
Beijing's position, for the time being at least, appears to be that normal dealings with Taiwan are not possible as long as Lee sticks by his announcement. So far, Lee has not changed his stand. The man who has transformed Taiwan appears confident that he can weather this latest storm.
Indeed, opinion polls on the island suggest a majority of residents approve of the statement, saying it merely reflects reality. They point to Taiwan's economic prosperity, relatively unaffected by the Asian economic crisis. They also take confidence from Taiwan's powerful military, armed in large part by the United States and other Western powers, as well as Washington's long-standing policy that it would not tolerate Chinese military aggression against Taiwan.
It is all this that continues to ensure Lee Teng-hui's popularity in Taiwan. Regardless of the controversy and debate his policies have triggered, the people of Taiwan appear to believe that it is Lee who is best equipped to guide their ship into an uncertain future.